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Colts' Zaire Franklin: 'It’s Time for Us to Put Some Banners Up'

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin was not shy about setting expectations for 2024 and beyond.

When NFL free agency was about to begin earlier this week, a few names were in contention for the first Indianapolis Colts player to receive an extension.

Players like Michael Pittman Jr., Grover Stewart, and Kenny Moore II were either placed on the franchise tag or expected to return with the team. It was a matter of when, not if, these players would receive new deals with the Colts.

But as it turns out, the first player to receive an extension still had a year left on his current deal. That would be Zaire Franklin, the seventh-round pick turned tackling machine and leader of the Colts' defense. The Colts and Franklin agreed to a three-year, $31.26 million extension on Sunday night, tying the linebacker to the team through the 2027 season.

While the timing of the extension surprised many, a new deal for Franklin had been in the works for a long time.

“I hate to lie to you sometimes – but it was something that we had been working on pretty much since November," Franklin revealed. "Just kind of talking through – after last season I kind of approached them like, ‘Hey, something ain’t right.’ I think definitely credit to Chris (Ballard), Mike Bluem, the Irsays and everyone involved pretty much to just handle it. I feel like we handled it like professionals.”

Franklin signed a three-year, $10 million extension in the spring of 2022. At the time, Franklin had spent most of his career as a core special teams player for the Colts. As a seventh-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Franklin had worked his way up to special teams captain and proved he was someone Indy could count on for the unit.

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin (44) reacts after a play Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

When the 2022 season got underway, Franklin found himself in a completely different role. Filling in for the injured Shaquille Leonard, Franklin burst onto the scene, proving he deserved more snaps on defense and should be a full-time starter. In two years as a starter, all Franklin has done is set the Colts' franchise record for tackles in a season in back-to-back years.

A raise for Franklin was well-deserved, and the Colts were happy to work something out. He now heads into Year 7 of his NFL career, all with the team that drafted him. It is not a fact that Franklin takes for granted.

"To be able to now going into my seventh year with one team, that’s rare," Franklin said. "Not many guys that you meet throughout the league have played for that long for one team. Now, to be able to share that experience with E.J. (Speed), Kenny, Grove, Buck (DeForest Buckner), it means a lot."

Franklin holds a unique perspective that other players in the league may not have. He was not a high-draft pick with expectations of stardom. Franklin was not even guaranteed a spot on the team when he was a rookie.

But the Colts believed in his ability and saw the work ethic and leadership qualities Franklin possessed. He was allowed to work on his game and make mistakes through playing and gaining experience. Without the Colts believing in him and others, Franklin does not think they would be the same players today.

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"For a lot of guys, I think that belief that the organization believes in you, they want you there and they are willing to let you grow through small mistakes or difficulties you go through – I think that allows a lot of guys to grow," Franklin explained. "I think you see that in a lot of the guys that have re-signed or guys whose careers have continued to catapult the further they get into this, because sometimes you have to believe in your players to get the best out of them.”

The Colts certainly believe in their players, and their actions this offseason have backed that up. Instead of bringing in numerous outside free agents, most of the Colts' moves, since free agency began, revolve around keeping and rewarding their own. Like Franklin, players like Pittman, Stewart, Moore, and others have already received new deals less than a week into free agency.

Now, some fans do not appreciate this approach and wish the Colts would be more aggressive in bringing in outside talent. With the Colts finishing 9-8 and missing out on the playoffs in 2023, there is an urgency to take the next step. But if the Colts chose not to bring back the likes of Pittman, Stewart, Moore, and others, the team would almost certainly be worse because of it.

"I understand sometimes re-signing your own is not as sexy as people want it to be," Franklin admitted. "But if you look at it objectively, you’ll see Kenny is the best nickel in the NFL, period. Grover, if not the best, one of the top nose tackles in the league. Pittman Jr., top No. 1 receivers in the league. Obviously, myself included. These are top players together and I think it means a lot for us to maintain and keep that in-house."

Oct 2, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin (44) and cornerback Kenny Moore II (23) celebrate after a tackle on Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (not pictured) at Lucas Oil Stadium.

With their top players locked up for next season, the Colts continue to look for players who can help them improve. Plenty of free agents are still available, and the NFL draft is over a month away. Indy will add a bevy of new talent to the roster over the coming months.

At the same time, the next step needs to be made. The Colts have not won a division crown since 2014 and have missed the playoffs four out of the last five seasons. Simply put, it has not been good enough, and Franklin knows results are desperately needed.

"That being said, it’s time for us to go get it now," Franklin stated. "All the other stuff aside, what’s most important is how you left and you left by wins and losses. That’s what matters.”

The Colts are setting high expectations for themselves heading into 2024. Their young, explosive quarterback, Anthony Richardson, will be making his return. Jonathan Taylor is healthy and under contract for the foreseeable future. And despite all of the ups and downs in Shane Steichen's first year as head coach, Indy was just a few plays away from capturing the division title.

But close will not cut it. The Colts need to take control of their own destiny in 2024 and reestablish themselves as a force in the AFC. Players see the accomplishments of past teams hanging in the rafters of Lucas Oil Stadium every Sunday and want to add even more.

"I think at this point now, accolades aside, money aside, it’s time for us to put some banners up now," Franklin remarked. "It’s time for us to accomplish something. We’ve got to leave here with something other than good memories.”

Do you know what else brings good memories? Winning championships.

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